Thinking differently about snowpack in 2016: Roger Bales on KQED

L. Bernacchi
March 3, 2016


KQED Radio’s Forum hosted Professor Roger Bales to comment on the state of California’s water resources. Snowpack accounts for one third of the state’s water supply. On March 1, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) released that the statewide snowpack is only 83% of normal.

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Roger Bales, UC Merced HydrologistAlthough it’s an El Nino year and northern California is experiencing more snow and rain than  in the previous four winters, the southern half of the Sierra Nevada has not. “Every El Nino is different,” Bales stated on the radio program.

“We have to think statistically about these things. There is still a probability that we’ll get more precipitation during March, but remember that El Nino only gives us a higher probability of a wet winter, particularly further south.”

With respect to water storage, Bales added that the story of reservoirs is different in the north and the south. “It’s true that Shasta and Oroville [reservoirs] are approaching normal conditions, at least after this storm, but in the southern sierra reservoirs are way down and the snow pack is way down. So it’s likely we will have shortages relative to normal.” Shasta water serves the many interests in California: Central Valley agriculture, endangered wildlife, and human populations.

Even though some reservoirs are gradually filling, Bales cautioned about the interpretation of storage. “Remember, this is a multiple year drought. It’s going to take several years of above average to refill our storage.

We need to think of storage all the way through the snowpack and reservoirs, all the way to the groundwater.”

The show’s host pointed out that the state’s water conservation story is positive. Californian’s have largely met the governors mandated cutbacks of 25% domestic use. Bales added that “I believe that’s going to have to be the new normal. This four year drought possibly going into a fifth year is not an anomaly.”


Roger Bales is the director of the University of California Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative, the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory, and UC Merced’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute. He has thirty years of experience in hydrology and water measurements in the western US.